December 17, 2004 Leave a comment Go to comments

lemonysnicketOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

In what can almost be seen as an extension of the playfulness he showed in writing Finding Nemo in 2003, Thomas Newman has written the score for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the first big-screen adaptation of the popular children’s stores by author Daniel Handler. Essentially a distillation of three of the Lemony Snicket books – The Bad Beginning”, “The Reptile Room”, and “The Wide Window” – director Brad Silberling’s film stars child actors Emily Browning and Liam Aiken as the Baudelaire children, made orphans in a mysterious fire and sent to live with their thespian uncle, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). What results are – as the title suggests – a series of unfortunate events as Olaf hatches plot after plot to bump off the children and get his hands on their inheritance. With a supporting cast that includes Meryl Streep, Billy Connolly and Timothy Spall, Lemony Snicket looks set to rival Harry Potter in the coming years as the “literary franchise for children” – especially with another ten stories from which to choose future film storylines.

A decade ago, this film would have been scored by Danny Elfman. Even now, taking into account the judicious use of Elfman’s score for Edward Scissorhands in the film’s trailers, it is obvious that his tone of magical whimsy is something the film-makers were eager to recapture. With that in mind, it actually comes as something of a surprise to hear the approach Thomas Newman has taken in scoring Lemony Snicket. The word which springs to mind is “spiky”.

The one thing about Thomas Newman’s work is that he has a distinct and easily identifiable sound. In a nutshell, Lemony Snicket is a cross between American Beauty, Six Feet Under and Finding Nemo, with a tiny bit of Meet Joe Black thrown in for good measure. The opening cue, “The Bad Beginning” starts out by being rather misleading, but soon settles down into the first of many cues which emphasizes rhythm and texture over melody and harmony. This approach is carried throughout the score: rather than going down the usual themes-and-variations road, Newman’s score instead presents a series of cues which rattle and dance, twinkle and jangle, and which are slightly unsettling in their skittishness. Typical children’s music this is not.

The usual assortment of weird and wonderful instruments are again in evidence – alongside his standard symphony orchestra, Newman employs the use of various dulcimers, chimes, harps, marimbas and assorted percussion instruments to give the score its twangy, slightly nervous-sounding feel. The one constant in Lemony Snicket is its sense of movement: it is never still, and the whole thing contains a kind of edgy energy that makes everything seem just a little off-center.

Nevertheless, many individual cues do have moments of musical excellence: “Chez Olaf” and “Verisimilitude” contain a vaguely sinister processed violin element which scrapes and flutters across the bouncing orchestra; “The Baudelaire Orphans” and “VFD” have a charming music-box like theme which seems to represent the innocence the children lose in the fire; “The Reptile Room” and “Snaky Message” have a vaguely Arabic inflection to illustrate the exotic nature of the animals at hand; “The Marvelous Marriage” is a whirligig dance piece that sounds like a reject from Zorba the Greek than anything in Newman’s past; “A Woeful Wedding” contains a wonderful plucked rhythmic device which sets a tone of nervous anticipation; “Taken By Surpreeze” is a variation on the Woeful Wedding motif, but built up with more powerful brasses and a livelier, more energetic tempo.

There is also a surprising amount of action music, which in itself is unusual for a Newman score, but here moreso as several tracks contain a great deal of loud, quite threatening dissonance and broad orchestral strokes not often associated with Newman’s work. “An Unpleasant Incident Involving A Train” is especially clever, with Newman using various sections of the orchestra and to mimic the threatening sound of an oncoming locomotive. “Cold as Ike” and “Hurricane Herman” combine to make a 5-minute sequence of music which conveys a sense of power and tension through a series of dramatic string performances and thunderous tempos. Similarly, “The Regrettable Episode of the Leeches” and “Attack of the Hook-Handed Man” contain some quite vicious passages, the former being especially notable for its remarkable brass performance in which the players flutter-tongue like crazy.

Having briefly bowed to thematic content in the lovely piano-based “Resilience”, and hinted at things to come during “One Last Look,” Newman finally relents at the end of the score and presents a full, lush orchestral melody during “The Letter That Never Came”. This sweeping theme, a richer version of the one heard in track 5, is in the same vein as the likes of The Shawshank Redemption and Meet Joe Black, and when heard in juxtaposition with the rest of the score, it blows through the proceedings like a breath of fresh air. Newman is at his absolute best when he is writing this kind of music.

The one oddball cue is “Loverly Spring”, a snippet of which is heard at the very beginning of the score. It’s a brilliant pastiche of Carl Stalling’s Silly Symphony music cartoons, which Walt Disney used to produce in abundance in the 1930s, and which were full of painfully happy melodies and twee little lyrics about little bunnies and blue birdies singing diddle-diddle-doo. Quite what this cue is doing sitting in the middle of this score is yet to be revealed, but if nothing else it highlights Newman’s versatility.

However, the one problem with Lemony Snicket is the same one which plagued Finding Nemo back in 2003: a lack of cohesiveness as a whole. In cue after cue, Newman presents idea after idea, then abandons them after a minute or two, and rarely returns to them later in the score. Almost every cue exists as a standalone entity, and while there may be stylistic similarities between cues in terms of texture and orchestration, there is no thematic cement holding everything together. The end result is a widespread disjointedness which, in terms of the score as a whole, makes it less of an interesting listen than it could otherwise have been.

It’s difficult to know how to sum up Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. As an exercise in creating a mood, and from the point of view of excellence in orchestration and performance, it is undoubtedly brilliant. Newman’s attention to detail, and cleverness in making intricate musical patterns with his palette of exotic instruments is unsurpassed (the best way to appreciate this is to listen on headphones.) Nevertheless, there is just still a little something about it which stops Lemony Snicket from being a great listening experience. Maybe it’s the lack of a central recurring theme. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that everything is so spiky and jarring that the listener is on edge for the duration of the CD. Or maybe it’s due to the fact that, somewhere in the back of your mind, you are quietly wondering to yourself what Danny Elfman might have written…

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • The Bad Beginning (3:20)
  • Chez Olaf (3:12)
  • The Baudelaire Orphans (2:32)
  • In Loco Parentis (1:27)
  • Resilience (2:30)
  • The Reptile Room (1:35)
  • An Unpleasant Incident Involving a Train (4:51)
  • Curdled Cave (2:04)
  • Puttanesca (2:41)
  • Curious Feeling of Falling (1:45)
  • Regarding the Incredibly Deadly Viper (2:33)
  • The Marvelous Marriage (0:52)
  • Lachrymose Ferry (0:38)
  • Concerning Aunt Josephine (2:08)
  • VFD (1:11)
  • The Wide Window (1:11)
  • Cold as Ike (2:45)
  • Hurricane Herman (2:18)
  • Snaky Message (2:31)
  • The Regrettable Episode of the Leeches (2:45)
  • Interlude With Sailboat (1:04)
  • Verisimilitude (2:16)
  • Loverly Spring (1:50)
  • A Woeful Wedding (3:21)
  • Attack of the Hook Handed Man (2:22)
  • Taken by Supreeze (2:02)
  • One Last Look (1:41)
  • The Letter That Never Came (4:13)
  • Drive Away (5:04)

Running Time: 68 minutes 58 seconds

Sony Classical SK-93576 (2004)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by Thomas Pasatieri. Featured musical soloists George Doering, Michael Fisher, Steve Tavaglione, Steve Kuijala, Rick Cox, Oliver Schroer, Frank Marocco, Jim Self, Bill Bernstein and Thomas Newman. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner and Tommy Vicari. Edited by Bill Bernstein. Mastered by Joe Gastwirt. Album produced by Thomas Newman and Bill Bernstein.

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